As we’re in the heat of the summer it seemed fitting to do a picture about summer fun. And, what could be more fun than Mermaids at Play? The reason I chose this imagining of mermaids isn’t only because Arnold Bocklin seemed to be doing “dark fantasy art” before it was popular — there were, of course, Francisco Goya and Hieronymus Bosch before him… but as for choosing him now, there’s something interesting in depicting fantasy creatures with a certain realism. All art, (or most good art), is at least about the choices the creator made.
When I say “depicting fantasy creatures with a certain realism,” I’m not just talking about the artist’s skill as a master of the brush — not just technical skill, but narrative skill. The ability of an artist to thematically link all elements of an image in order to yield up a certain impression.
With that in mind, if you compare Rocklin’s depiction of mermaids to those in the popular imagination… this one seems to ring true. It does not say others are false, but what is it that makes this seem real? In previous art works we’ve focused on design elements as such. Here, we focus on content as an element of design.
Taking in the content at a glance, Bocklin depicts his mermaids as something that is not only un-romantic, but definitely unappealing. Unappealing even in spite of all the bare breasts. That fact that there is a baby present increases the mermaids’ cringe-worthiness. And, that there is another careless mermaid doing a backflip off the rock, looking like it might land on the baby mermaid make them appear irresponsible to top it all off.
In short, Bocklin’s mermaids seem like the kind of homeless fish-tailed sub-human you might expect a real mermaid to be. Let’s face it, if mermaids built cities and wrote things, we would’ve found them by now. On the other hand, if they’re some type of illiterate ocean nomad then this painting seems to introduce us to “The Real Mermaids of the Atlantic Ocean”.